Authenticity in Art

Walter Benjamin, a philosopher and critic was the first to coin the term authenticity in relation to Art in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.

But what exactly did he mean and what do people generally mean when they refer to something being authentic or inauthentic?

There are two different terms for the types of authenticity and what it implies.

Nominal authenticity, the first description of authenticity, means that the origin of an artwork has been correctly identified: that is, who created that artwork, when it was created, what was the process etc.

The second type, expressive authenticity, refers to what the artist is expressing, how sincerely they expressed themselves and their beliefs and how their artwork is a reflection of themselves and society at that place in time.

A City on a Rock, long attributed to Goya, is now thought to have been painted by the 19th-century forger Eugenic Lucas. Elements of the painting appear to have been copied from autographed works by Goya, and the painting is therefore classified as a pastiche. Compare to Goya's May tree.

However, the line between authentic and replication can be a nebulous one.

For example, a Han Van Meegeren forgery of a Vermeer painting will be a replica as it is a Vermeer forgery but authentic in the sense that it is an authentic Han Van Meegeren. Even in terms of display works of art have been considered to be inauthentic, for example, when religious works of art are displayed in places other than those of worship they are said to be inauthentic in terms of what their original intent was when they were created.

Painting "The Last Supper I" by Han van Meegeren on 11th art and antiques fair in Rotterdam August 31, 1984. - In the summer of 1938, van Meegeren moved to Nice. 1939 he painted "The Last Supper I" in the style of Vermeer.

Another issue when differentiating the authentic from the replica is the modern mindset as many consider that with the advent of modern copying technologies and new forms of art such as photography, the idea of strict authorship and complete originality are out dated and not in touch with modern notions of art. But there is also resistance to this new mindset as is evident when people still devote time in tracing authentic artwork and its origin.

In 2008 a life-sized copy of Paolo Veronese’s astounding work “Wedding at Cana” attracted 20,000 visitors in 3 months who chose to see the copy rather than other original works of art hanging in the same museum. This and other replications of famous art made by Madrid-based Factum Arte have been hugely popular and the justification for the displays has been that setting out the originals would have caused damage to them.

The Wedding Feast at Cana / Paolo Veronese

It therefore seems that authenticity and replication and the necessity for both is something that changes with the times and people’s needs and mindsets. As so much else rapidly evolves in the Art World, so do these two terms and what they imply.


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